The Awl, 2009-2018

The Awl was born of the following thoughts: What if there were a website with a wealth of resonant, weird, important, frightening and amusing bits of news and ideas? What if it weren’t so invested in giving you the “counterintuitive take” that it actually stopped making sense? What if it were run by people who actually didn’t care about the way we all allegedly live now?

We believed that there was a great big Internet out there on which we all lived, and that too often its curios and oddities were ignored in favor of the most obvious and easy stories. We believed that there was an audience of intelligent readers who were poorly served by being delivered those same stories in numbing repetition to the detriment of their reading diet. We believed that there was no topic unworthy of scrutiny, so long as it was approached from an intelligent angle. We believed that there was no such thing as too long or too short for the Internet, that stories should use as many words as they needed to be to say what they had to say, and no more. We believed we could make a place where these organizing principles would find a community that felt the same way.

How’d we do?

Well, we’re dead now, so maybe not great, but we went at it a lot longer than any of us thought we would at the beginning, so maybe better than expected. What I can say is that every idea we had about what the site should be was both fundamentally correct and gloriously wrong, and that learning by doing was the most fascinating way to figure out what our creation was actually for.

I have described listening to the last two weeks of tributes to The Awl as like getting to go to your funeral without actually having to die. The most interesting part of it for me was finding out how many different things The Awl represented to people: For some it was an incubator of talent, a place that took a chance on those lacking experience and helped them find a way to express themselves without exploiting them for traffic. For some it was a home to curious and unusual stories that were unlikely to be found anywhere else. For some it was a site to stretch out on a skill they weren’t able to exercise in other areas. For some it was simply a space where they finally found their sensibilities reflected in a way that they didn’t even know they were missing before they discovered it.

The most amazing thing about The Awl was watching the delight everyone took in being a part of it. From commenters to contributors to quiet readers, it was almost as if there was an outpouring of joy each time someone discovered that they were a member of the tribe. I am thankful for every single person who had a hand in this website, even the people who turned up once a month to see what had happened since their last visit. To the extent that anyone made The Awl, everyone made The Awl, and I am grateful to each of you.

Any job, if it’s any good, should start off giving you the feeling that you can’t believe you get to do it every day. Most jobs, even the good ones, end up filling you with the feeling that you can’t believe you have to do it again each morning. I can still remember how much I couldn’t wait to fall asleep each night so I could hurry up and get to the next day and start doing the site once more. It took an awfully long time before that buzz wore off, and I can’t imagine ever again finding something where the joy constantly sprang from the sheer anarchy and mystery and lack of rules and not knowing what was going to happen next. It has been one of the great privileges of my life.

If you’re willing to sacrifice you never have to compromise, and I’m proud to say we did very little compromising over the last nine years. That does unfortunately mean we did a lot of sacrificing, and after a while that becomes unsustainable. The surprise shouldn’t be that The Awl didn’t last, it should be that it lasted as long as it did. And now it’s dead. The archives will remain up, but I hope they degrade in the way everything on the Internet does and that eventually they sink into the vast sea of undiscoverable content so that a decade from now one of you can look at a young person who is ignoring you while she stares at her phone and say, “You can’t find it anymore, but the most amazing thing on the Internet was The Awl. It’s impossible to believe something that incredible existed.” And since everything will have disappeared no one will be able to dispute it. If we wait around long enough our legacy will be legend. We’ll secretly know the truth, but it won’t make any difference then, will it?

Thank you, in advance, for lying about how amazing we were. And thank you, right now, for your attention. You will never know how much it meant.

Photo: Balk